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New research on relational thinking, leverage points and transformations

Young people going for a recreational walk in the woods. Photo: Sanna Stålhammar.
Relational thinking in sustainability science can shed new light on human nature connections argues the authors of a new research article. Photo: Sanna Stålhammar.

A new research article examines how relational approaches might contribute to a paradigm shift in sustainability science, and transformations towards sustainability. Relational approaches foster more dynamic, holistic accounts of human-nature connectedness; more situated and diverse knowledges for decision-making; and new domains and methods of intervention that nurture relationships in place and practice.

In sustainability science, revising the paradigms that separate humans from nature is considered a powerful ‘leverage point’ in pursuit of transformations. The coupled social-ecological and human-environment systems perspectives at the heart of sustainability science have, in many ways, enhanced recognition across academic, civil, policy and business spheres that humans and nature are inextricably connected. However, in retaining substantialist assumptions where ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ refer to different classes of entity that interact, coupled systems perspectives insist on the inextricability of humans and nature in theory, while requiring researchers to extricate them in practice – thus inadvertently reproducing the separation they seek to repair.

Consequently, sustainability researchers are increasingly drawing on scholarship from the ‘relational turn’ in the humanities and the social sciences to propose a paradigm shift for sustainability science: away from focusing on interactions between entities, towards emphasizing continually unfolding processes and relations.

The research paper was authored by Sanna Stålhammar and Stephen Woroniecki during their time at LUCSUS, together with resarchers from Stockholm Resilience Centre.

In the article, published in Ecosystems and People, the researchers identify four themes in relational thinking – continually unfolding processes; embodied experience; reconstructing language and concepts; and ethics/practices of care – and highlight the ways in which these are being drawn on in sustainability science. They conclude by critically discussing how relational approaches might contribute to a paradigm shift in sustainability science, and transformations towards sustainability. 

Read the article: A relational turn for sustainability science? Relational thinking, leverage points and transformations on